The water vole, one of the country's most loveable native species made famous by Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, is seriously under threat. But Bradford Council's wildlife team believes it has turned a corner in its fight against the mammal's arch enemy - the American mink. T&A Reporter Mel Fairhurst investigates.

Contrary to popular belief, "Ratty" in the Wind in the Willows was actually a water vole.

And the quintessentially English rodent could soon become nothing more than a fairytale following its rapid demise over the past 30 years.

Recent surveys reveal the water vole has disappeared from almost 90 per cent of the sites where it once thrived.

And one of the main reasons it is on the way to extinction is a predator from across the Atlantic - the American mink.

These wily creatures bred in the wild after escaping from three large fur farms and from individual breeders. Since the 1960s, they have spread fast and are particularly rife across West Yorkshire.

But Bradford Council's countryside team believes it has turned a corner in its battle with the alien species following five years of hard work and determination.

Countryside officer Peter Britton described the trapping and destruction of mink across the district as "successful", with more than 200 caught last year.

However, they are prolific breeders and hundreds still continue to roam our countryside.

He said: "We are actually winning the battle, but it is quite slow because you need co-operation from neighbouring authorities. Everybody in Yorkshire needs to be working together to rid ourselves of them.

"They are cocky. It is not uncommon to see a whole family run along the top of canal gates. There have been reports of them roaming Five Rise Locks in Bingley, at Hirst Wood and at the back of Damart in Bingley. They are all over the place.

"There are quite a lot around small nature reserves, down the banks of the Aire. They are damn clever creatures. But, we have certainly come a long way with the help of people like landowners and game keepers."

Mr Britton has dedicated 25 years to protecting the district's countryside and knows first-hand the impact mink has on water voles and other species.

He said: "If there is a high population of mink, they will take on whatever species is in that area. They will take on mammals as big as full-grown rabbits, and chickens, anything that will provide them with food on the bank side.

"They are a clever species. We caught one in the hollow of a tree with a collection of koi carp and trout it had gathered."

Mr Britton has not seen a water vole in Bradford for years but unofficial sightings at Nell Bank in Ilkley, Silsden Beck and at Pitty Beck in Thornton fill him with hope.

He said: "I would say we won't get rid of mink before I retire. It takes a lot of effort and some people think it is futile, but Bradford certainly has one of the oldest and best countryside services in the country."

The Council has been given the nod by the Government to rid Bradford of the dreaded mink, following the publication of Natural England's UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

A Natural England spokesman said: "The key to controlling mink is to trap them over a wide area that takes in the whole catchment for a river system.

"It is important that Bradford Council continues with the work - particularly at this time of the year as young adult mink leave their parents and establish new territories.

"It really is a long-term project to tackle this very clever predator."

Jon Traill, of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, said water voles are also vital to nature's eco-system, with animals such as barn owls dependent on feeding on the animals, which are at the bottom of the food chain.